Councilor fires back against lawsuit
By Caitlin Davis, Senior Staff Writer
Apr 4, 2014, 09:20
HOPEWELL — In the month following the $2.3 million lawsuit filed by Catherine Mitchell for a comment made in a Facebook post, Brenda Pelham has filed with the court to have the case moved out of Colonial Heights or dismissed altogether.
The post on Facebook, which as of press time is still visible on the website, calls into question Mitchell and Commonwealth’s Attorney Rick Newman’s involvement in the resignation of former African-American Police Chief Steve Martin, who resigned in 2011.
Mitchell has been a member of the Hopewell Police Department since 1989 and currently serves as a master patrolman.
In her post, Pelham states, “I believe Mitchell and definitely Newman were a part of the Klan that politicked behind the scene that had a part in ensuring he [Martin] resigned from his position.” At the end of her post, Pelham signed it as “Councilor Brenda Pelham.”
The lawsuit, which was filed on Feb. 27 in Colonial Heights Circuit Court, states that the claim Pelham made by the post was to imply both Mitchell and Newman “is and was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.”
“Ms. Pelham, in publishing all the false and defamatory statements about Ms. Mitchell as alleged in this Complaint, was acting both in her individual capacity and in her capacity as a member of the City Council for the City of Hopewell.”
“As a direct result and proximate result of the Defendant’s false and defamatory statements, the Plaintiff has suffered, continues to suffer, and will in the future suffer, injuries and actual damages including damage to her professional reputation and standing, diminished standing in the community, loss of earning capacity, embarrassment, humiliation, mental and emotional suffering and other damages,” the lawsuit states.
In Pelham’s suit, she states that none of the action — the Facebook post or television interview that was conducted by WTVR the day of the election — has a “practical nexus or relationship with Colonial Heights. None of the parties, witnesses or evidence are located in Colonial Heights.”
In the day following her Facebook post, WTVR conducted a television interview with Pelham regarding her post on Facebook and the misspelling and improper capitalization of the word clan.
Wayne Covil, senior WTVR reporter, states that he asked Councilor Pelham about the post and “... told me she was surprised when people told her how she spelled clan with a ‘k.’’ Once on camera Pelham states, “It probably was done subconsciously.”
At the end of the broadcast, Pelham again appears on camera stating, “It had nothing to do with what people are accusing me of. If you’re convicted by a word, that’s your choice. I know my intent.”
The filed objection to the lawsuit, which was filed in Colonial Heights on March 26, also states that Mitchell filed in Colonial Heights, “because she believes she will have a more favorable and sympathetic jury, because her allegations of defamation involve race.”
Included in the suit, were demographics of both Hopewell and Colonial Heights. In 2012, Hopewell had total of 22,300 residents, with 56.9 percent being white and 38.8 percent black. Colonial Heights, in 2012, had a population of 17,500 residents with 81.8 percent white and 11.9 percent black.
Pelham said that Mitchell chose Colonial Heights because, she is “seeking a generally ‘plaintiff friendly’ venue…Rather, Mitchell hopes to inflame a white jury against the black defendant.”
In another filing, on that same day in March, Pelham said the Facebook post she made the day before the election in November and the following television interview on the day of the election, were just her “expressing her opinion and engaging in campaign rhetoric.” The suit states that because of those reasons, “Mitchell does not have a cause of action against Pelham.”
Pelham’s suit also defends the other exhibits that were brought up in Mitchell’s suit filed in February, such as one where Pelham states, “…He [Martin] did resign but it was under duress. The Hopewell Citizens for Good “Bad” Government and these candidates are the new G.O.B.s y’all continually talk about.”
The other exhibit that was given as part of Mitchell’s lawsuit was another comment that appeared on the original post, “I know the word ‘racist’ has not come out of my mouth towards any one candidate Mr. Mitchell. What I said was concerning afflications(sic) with the Tea Party,” Pelham wrote in response to a comment. She goes on to state, “Tea Party members would definitely send us, African Americans, back to the stone ages. They hate us for the sake of hating. Now that’s what I said!!!”
“The factual allegations in the Complaint do not reference Pelham ever referring to Mitchell as a Tea Party member, assert that Mitchell was in fact a Tea Party Member, or in any way show that the post was intended to refer to Mitchell.”
Pelham argues that for Mitchell to prove that the comment were defamatory, she must prove the comments were made specifically about her. Pelham’s alleges that none of her comments directly pertain to Mitchell.
“It is the type of speech that is commonplace in elections ... statements that express only the speaker’s opinion and not matters of fact are not actionable as defamation, because such statements cannot be shown to be false,” the filing states.
After giving numerous references to past court cases and various other examples, Pelham’s filing states that the lawsuit against her be dismissed. The filing states Mitchell has not “alleged a cause of action for defamation.”